Critics hit the government’s confusing vaccine purchase program

Critics hit the government’s confusing vaccine purchase program

Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, is embracing China’s Sinovac vaccine despite its confusing efficacy data.

By Tracy Cabrera

MANILA — Thirty-three elderly citizens in Norway died after getting inoculated with the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, shocking the global community fanning further fears in the hearts and minds of Filipinos who — although clamoring for the Duterte administration to give a comprehensive and inclusive response to the pandemic — are reluctant to be vaccinated because of efficacy issues and possible side-effects from the vaccine.

But Norwegian Institute of Public Health director Camilla Stoltenberg argued that a direct causal link between the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and those who died, who were “elderly, frail and had serious illnesses, is “not a given,” saying though that the development has nevertheless jacked up widespread apprehension over the safety of the vaccines.

Reacting to the issue, local Food and Drug Administration (FDA) director-general Rolando Domingo gave assurances that the emergency use authorization (EUA), which was issued recently on January 14 that allows the distribution and use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the Philippines, could be revised or revoked “at any time” depending on how safety concerns are addressed.

The first Europe-wide safety report on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is expected to be published at the end of this month.

Countries like the Philippines are pinning their hopes of recovery from the public health and economic crises on Covid-19 vaccines but a Pulse Asia survey conducted between November 23 and December 2 last year revealed that 40 percent of Filipinos surveyed were indecisive to be administered with the vaccine while 20 percent would not want Covid-19 jab over safety fears.

And President Duterte certainly did not help matters when he played medical expert and categorically linked the deaths in Norway to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which at this time is authorized for public use in over 40 countries, including the United States and the European Union.

“You senators want Pfizer? In Norway, 25 persons died after receiving Pfizer vaccination. Do you want it? We’ll order for you,” the former Davao City mayor said sarcastically, addressing senators in a late Monday televised address. The Senate had been conducting hearings on the implementation of the administration’s nationwide vaccination program.

The President appeared to have no qualms flogging the Pfizer vaccine, which is said to have the highest efficacy rate among the available vaccines in the market at 95 percent, but has had only warm words for the China-made Sinovac vaccine, which has a much lower efficacy rate of just over 50 percent.

“Almost everybody that I know (is) scrambling to buy this Pfizer (vaccine). To me I think it’s a good one,” he said while quickly adding, “If you want to follow the experience of Norway, go ahead. Nobody would stop you.”

Duterte defended his stance favoring China’s Sinovac vaccine Coronavac, pointing out that “the Chinese are not lacking in brains.”

“The Chinese are bright. They would not venture (into producing vaccines) if it is not safe, sure and secure,” he enthused.

Still, the FDA has yet to authorize the use of Sinovac’s Coronavac in the country and presidential spokesperson Atty. Harry Roque has practically become its most ardent salesman. According to Roque, the Chinese vaccine will be the only one available in the country from February until June so he advised that Pinoys should “not be choosy” and just get the Sinovac jabs since they use ‘Made in China’ products in their everyday lives anyway.

Officially tagged as the country’s ‘vaccine czar’, secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. also essentially vouched for Sinovac when he said the EUA for it will be issued next month, prompting Senator Panfilo Lacson to point out that while “stringent conditions have to be complied with before the FDA issues an EUA for a Covid-19 vaccine . . . the assurance made by Secretary Galvez that Sinovac will be approved before its supposed roll-out somehow sends an impression of undue preference for the Sinovac over other available vaccines.”

The retired general had initially refused to disclose the final negotiated price for Sinovac, saying only that “hindi tataas ng PhP700,” but after much criticism of the Palace’s aversion to transparency and seeming disrespect for the public’s right to information, Roque claimed the Sinovac jabs cost only about PhP650 per dose and then went on to brand as “fake news” the earlier price matrix from Senator Sonny Angara’s showing Sinovac as the most expensive vaccine option.

Angara, however, clarified that the data he disclosed came from the Department of Health (DoH) itself.

Filipinos wary of the Pfizer and Sinovac vaccines may be relieved at the news that a number of local governments have opted to secure deals with another vaccine developer, the British drug maker AstraZeneca. But, yet again, conflicting directives from the government may throw a monkey wrench at this initiative.

At one point, the chief executive said that the national government “won’t meddle” in the vaccine purchase of mayors and governors and that they were free to choose for themselves. Just days later, however, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) thrashed that assurance, saying that LGUs must buy just half of what they need so that the national government can supply the rest.

This has prompted critics to focus on the truly mind-boggling directive and ask why the national government would still want to muscle in on the vaccination programs of well-off LGUs when it should welcome the chance to conserve resources that can then be diverted to poorer LGUs unable to buy their own vaccines. (AI/MTVN)

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